Observe enough TEXAS POLITICIANS over the years, and you come to expect certain things. Smooth banter and wit are a must, as are folksy anecdotes. A GOOD HEAD OF HAIR DOESN’T HURT. Neither does the ability to talk for hours without saying anything of substance. Above all, Texas politicos must be charming. BILL WHITE POSSESSES NONE OF THOSE TRAITS. WATCH video clips of the Observer’s interview with Bill White at tx1o.com ./whitevid Ask Bill White a question and he’ll likely tell you what he actually thinks. The Democratic nominee for governor and former three-term mayor of Houston is a remarkably genuine politician. Ask him a question and he’ll likely tell you what he actually thinks. His answer will be thoughtful, deadpan and likely consist of at least three demarcated segments, followed by a brief summation of the main points. He rarely retreats to the safety of talking points. His sincerity is endearing. At the same time, his efforts at small talk are tortured. His suits can be rumpled and ill-fitting \(on the day I met him for an hour-long interare positively Vulcan-like. He is bald. So when the candidate and his supporters claim, as they often do, that White isn’t a “career politician,” they have a point in one respect: In his speech, appearance and bearing, White is the antithesis of what most Texans have come to expect from their politiciansand a stark contrast with the man he’s trying to defeat, nine-year incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. In other ways, White is very much a typical politician, having spent many years in and around politics on the state and national level, and having long harbored high political ambitions. He just doesn’t look or sound the part. No oneoutside the Perry campaignwill ever accuse Bill White of being another Slick Willie. What he does have is a lawyer’s insistence on precise detail, a policy wonk’s thoughtfulness and ability to see all sides of an issue, and a businessman’s eye for opportunity. It’s that last traithis business acumenthat White hopes to parlay into four years as governor. When he claims he’s not a “career politician,” White’s really arguing that while he’s in politics, he’s not of itthat, at heart, he’s still a businessman who will bring a good businessman’s competence, sensibility and foresight to the governorship. “In business, you’re accountable in the marketplace every day,” White says. “You’re used to the discipline of listening to your customers.” In this analogy, of course, the customers are the voters and people of Texas. “I have a good friend, John Hofmeister, who ran Shell [Oil] USA. He did something that I did as mayor and that I also did when I was in business, which is he personally read the customer complaints. Because he wanted to let people know that you’re not as good as your press release. You’re only as good as your customers think you are.” So how good is he? White has had quite a few successes in business. He’s been a serious player in the energy industry, particularly in natural gas and oil extraction. For six years before he became mayor, White headed the Wedge Group, a holding company that during his tenure nurtured successful ventures in energy and real estate. There have been failures as well: The energy company he launched in 1996 has sputtered in its attempts to pump oil from the Caspian Sea, costing investors millions. Then there are business dealings that raise ethical questions. White has forged a close relationship with a drilling company named BJ Services, including serving on its board while he was mayor. He pocketed $2.6 million from BJ Services in the past seven years. Elected officials usually don’t earn that kind of money in the private sector while still in government. He’s also received campaign contributions from the company’s president. Meanwhile, critics point out, White’s position on natural gas drilling in North Texasin which BJ Services is heavily involvedwould greatly benefit the company if he becomes governor. His ties to the drilling outfit surprised some of White’s liberal supporters, but it shows what an interesting hybrid he is: An oil and gas man who was a member of the Greater Houston Partnershipan industry group that’s the very epicenter of big business in Texasbut also a politician whose record as Houston mayor was largely progressive. He worked to clean the air in Houston’s pollution-choked East End, to build affordable housing and, most famously, to house hundreds of thousands who fled Hurricane Katrina. He’s a progressive Democrat who won’t hesitate to crack down on big-business leaders when he feels they’re acting in bad faith, but who prefers to work cooperatively with them. After all, he understands where they’re coming from. Of course, many candidates have trotted out the businessman-turned-politician trope over the years. But in White’s case, it’s not just a campaign slogan. Those who worked with him and observed his tenure as Houston mayor describe his governing and policymaking style as, above all, business-like: ready to tackle problems swiftly and head-on. If a program is over budget, White’s first instinct is to cut costs. He believes that government’s primary role is to serve its customers the taxpayers. When White says he would run Texas government like a CEO, voters should believe him. So for Texans trying to decide what kind of governor he’d make, the key question is this: Just how good a businessman is Bill White? WHITE’S CAREER has long centered on energyhow to find it, get it and profit from it. He wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on natural gas production. When he was a young legislative aide for Texas congressman Bob Krueger in the 1970s, Congress was passing some of the nation’s first major energy bills. Even as he earned his law degree from the University of Texas at ; THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG
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